Giving Back in Paradise

Paepae o He‘eia perpetuates ancient Hawaiian practices of proper marine resource management.

Text by Lisa Yamada | Images by Manuel Mejia

The thing that gets you most about He‘eia Fishpond in Kāne‘ohe is the quiet. It’s a stillness that’s beautiful, indicative of an environment untampered with since the days of the ancient Hawaiians. The waters are still, reflecting a near-flawless mirrored image of the blue sky above it, broken only by a school of fish splashing their tails at the surface.


I, along with nearly 100 high school students from Kamehameha Schools, am here on a community workday, volunteering to help restore and rehabilitate the ancient fishpond with Paepae o He‘eia, the nonprofit charged with caring for it. By the end of the day, we hope to clear out more than 3,200 pounds (or more than 1.5 tons) of the invasive limu that flood in over the wall and choke the pond’s coral and marine inhabitants. The pond stretches across 88 acres of Kāne‘ohe Bay and is one of six remaining ponds in the area. Historically, fishponds were created by the ali‘i (chiefs) as stocking ponds to alleviate some of the pressure on the near-shore reef as the island populations increased. “It is thought, in fact, that King Kamehameha worked right here in this very fishpond,” says Hi‘ilei Kawelo, the executive director of Paepae o He‘eia.

If King Kamehameha worked in this pond, he would know it was backbreaking. Clearing seaweed is harder than I ever imagined. More and more handfuls of the invasive species get piled into my bag. Every scoop of seaweed brings up a host of sea creatures with it. Baby crabs struggle to get free. Little fish play dead. Gelatinous sea worms make some of the girls scream. I flick out as many as I can, but after a while, they all just get stuffed into the bag with the limu.

These baby critters are a sure sign of the vibrancy below the surface, but sustaining life in this pond is a delicate balance. Here water can become both cultivator and destroyer. Fresh water flows in from He‘eia Stream and salt water from Kane‘ohe Bay, creating a brackish environment perfect for cultivating fish. “The brackish water is like the foundation for life and the foundation for the food chain,” Kawelo tells me. “The waters are areas of high productivity, meaning there’s a proliferation of zooplankton and phytoplankton.” The pond, estimated to be about 600 to 800 years old, is being used as the kūpuna, the ancestors, intended it: “as a place of practice,” Kawelo says, “a place for our culture to live, to see a little bit of what is still possible. And to produce fish!”

According to Kawelo, about 85 percent of the time spent working on the pond is clearing out invasive species, whether it be the limu in the ponds or the mangrove trees covering the fishpond wall. There are six mākāhā (gates) within the wall that bring oxygen to the fish living in the pond and regulate the fish coming and going from the pond, allowing baby fish to swim in and preventing bigger fish from swimming out. “A hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have to buy fish and stock our pond,” says Kawelo. “It would happen naturally via the mākāhā.”

We end up clearing 5,400 pounds of invasive limu. As Keli‘i Kotubetey, the organization’s assistant executive director, hoists the last 50-pound bag of invasive Gracilaria salicornia onto a small pontoon boat, he expounds on the importance of the fishponds: “They provide an excellent and additional tool to practice proper marine resource management. It allows you to take what you need, when you need it. In our modern context, fishponds can still be used as a tool to combating the declining wild stocks.” For Kotubetey, the importance of the fishpond lies not only in its potential to grow food but to grow people. “We are growing a consciousness, being aware that our resources are finite, but we can still travel on the path of our ancestors who practiced at this very place.”

Paepae o He‘eia offers voluntouring opportunities on the beautiful Windward coast, as well as walking tours and corporate retreats. For more information, visit

For other ways to give back in paradise, check out these organizations:

Mālama I Nā Ahupua‘a (MINA) offers service-learning opportunities around Hawai‘i. The program is run by two University of Hawai‘i professors and several student coordinators and aims to spread knowledge on the traditional Hawaiian use of land and water. MINA partners with a multitude of organizations that offer projects ranging from cleaning ancient Hawaiian fish ponds and restoring overgrown heiau (shrine) to propagating endangered trees and shrubs in hidden crevices of Hawai‘i’s valleys. While originally founded as an organization for students, MINA serves as an excellent resource for a vast range of organizations that help to preserve indigenous knowledge. Be sure to contact the individual partner organizations first before attending any of the workdays. For more information, visit

Haleakalā makes up about 75 percent of the island of Maui. The dormant volcano is a national park and home home to a wide variety of native and endangered plants and animals, including the Hawai‘i’s state bird, the nene goose. Captive breeding programs and conservation efforts saved this bird from extinction. Offering conversation programs like these, the Pacific Whale Foundation has many guided ways to volunteer in the park. Every first and third Sunday of the month, the group works to remove invasive species, which helps to aid in the survival of more vulnerable wildlife. For more information, call 808-249-8811 for more information.

Whether you have a green thumb or not, the National Tropical Botanical Garden will be a great place to visit on your vacation to Kaua‘i. They have an extensive volunteer program that helps to support their mission to preserve tropical plants and eco-system. Their gardens consists of native Hawaiian plants, as well as plants from around the tropics. Volunteering opportunities are available to help with maintaining the garden and nursery or welcoming new visitors to the garden.

To find out more about the volunteering opportunities on Kaua‘i, visit

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